In honor of having made it through another year of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations (and/or firestorms), I’d like to consider some issues related to parenthood, and how we talk about it in the Church. Though I admittedly do have my qualms about some of the language related to gender, I have to say that the LDS emphasis on the importance of parenting is something I actually quite appreciate, and generally see as positive. At the same time, as a single adult member of the Church, I’m all too aware of how this emphasis can leave a large segment of the community feeling somewhat like second-class citizens. So I find myself coming back to the question, is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents? Or is that simply one of the costs of keeping the role of parent as central as we want it to be? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one.
I would, however, like to explore some of the underlying theology here. One possibly related question has to do with a classical theological problem: what exactly is the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings? In other words, what is it about us that makes us at least potentially like God? In the history of Christian theology, some have argued for rationality, that the human capacity for reason is what most closely reflects the divine. A popular recent approach, related to a resurgence of work on the Trinity, argues that the imago should be understood in terms of relationality; the triune God is constitutively relational, one who exists from the beginning not as autonomous but in relation with others, and human beings can therefore likewise only be understood in the context of our relationships.
In the context of LDS thought, when we think of the imago Dei we are perhaps likely to think of parenthood, as our teachings suggest that bearing and raising children may be the single activity in which we humans can engage that most brings out our divine potential. If God’s work and glory is to raise us, his children, then clearly parenting is a divine calling, not only in the sense of being divinely sanctioned, but also in the sense that is in fact the kind of work that God himself does. However, particularly given the close link between human and divine in LDS theology, I think it would be a mistake to take too narrow a view of the imago, to limit it to parenthood alone. Given our teachings about eternal progression, we might also see it in the human ability to learn, to give just one example. Presumably it also includes such things as our capacity to develop faith, hope, and charity. (It is interesting to note that, the Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, we don’t have much evidence that parenthood was part of Jesus’ mortal mission but I have yet to hear anyone make the case that this makes him a less than adequate image of the divine.)
This means that while I think we may have good reason to classify parenthood as the most important activity in which humans can engage in this life, a life which we understand as giving us opportunities and experiences which allow us to further develop our divine potential, this does not necessitate making parenthood the definitive purpose of mortality, the one toward which everything else should be oriented. While I don’t mind talks about the importance of parenthood, I have to admit that I start feeling prickly when I hear the suggestion that only those who are parents have learned the really important and valuable lessons of mortality. Sometimes parenthood gets talked about in a way which implies that some people are doing something meaningful now, in this life, while others are merely at best preparing to do something meaningful in the eternities, and (needless to say) I am not particularly fond of such a paradigm.
I’m wondering whether there might be some parallels here to the problem of religious pluralism. Even with our exclusive claims about the salvific necessity of LDS ordinances, I do not think we have any theological reason to believe that those outside of the LDS church are not learning and experiencing things which give them a chance to develop their divine potential. In fact, as I’ve posted before, I’m far from convinced that all people are called by God to join the LDS church in this life. Could something similar be true when it comes to questions related to marriage and parenting? I don’t think we have to back off from our teachings about the eternal significance of raising families to note that those things aren’t essential for following God and living a meaningful life, anymore than we have to let go of our claim to some kind of exclusivity in our religion in order to acknowledge the diverse ways that God works in the world and in the lives of individuals from a variety of faiths.
Our current strategy for softening the potential sting of statements about the divinity of motherhood in particular seems to be to re-define the term as one which encompasses all charitable relationships. But I wonder, if we emphasized that all women are children of God with the potential to be like him in a wide variety of ways, and it’s the development of our divine potential in all its many facets which is the purpose of mortality (and not just parenthood specifically), would it be necessary to make the rather odd claim that all women are mothers? Rather than re-defining the term “motherhood” into near meaninglessness, I think it could be worthwhile to instead make use of a broader conception of the imago Dei: one which centrally includes parenthood but nonetheless isn’t limited to it, and one which reminds us of the many ways in which we all are called to a life of Christian discipleship.